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GAULTIER DE VARENNES ET DE LA VÉRENDRYE, PIERRE (also called Boumois), officer, fur-trader, explorer; b. 17 Nov. 1685 at Trois-Rivières, son of René Gaultier* de Varennes and Marie Boucher; d. 5 Dec. 1749 at Montreal.
The Gaultiers came from the district of Angers, France, where their name is mentioned for the first time in the mid-16th century. Apparently they were prominent members of their community. They were substantial landowners – Varennes and La Vérendrye were the names of two of their estates – and held positions in the army, the judiciary, and the government. Although they were members of the third estate they were affecting a coat of arms by 1600.
René Gaultier de Varennes, the father of Pierre, came to Canada in September 1665 as a lieutenant in the Régiment de Carignan-Salières. His company was stationed in the Trois-Rivières district during the winter following his arrival. Undoubtedly, this is when he became acquainted with the local governor, Pierre Boucher*, whose 12-year-old daughter, Marie, he married in September 1667. René thus became connected with one of New France’s most prominent families and, as he had no doubt anticipated, his own fortunes soared as a result. He became governor of Trois-Rivières when Boucher resigned this office in 1668 and was granted seigneuries by Talon* and Frontenac [Buade*]. He thus acquired status but, despite involvement in the fur trade, not a great deal of wealth. He left his family destitute when he died in 1689.
Thirteen children were born of the marriage, eight of whom – four sons and four daughters – reached maturity. Pierre was the youngest and the only one to achieve prominence in Canadian affairs. Other children, however, also deserve mention. Louis, the eldest, was the original bearer of the name La Vérendrye (during Louis’s lifetime Pierre was called Boumois). Louis left Canada for France, entered the army, and was killed in action during the war of the Spanish Succession, either in 1706 or 1707. Jacques-René was an officer in the colonial regular troops. Marie-Renée, born in 1682, first married François-Christophe Dufrost de La Gemerais. One of their sons, Christophe*, was Pierre’s “second in command” in the west from 1731 to 1736.
Pierre received a little formal education at the seminary of Quebec where he was a student from 1696 to 1699. Already, however, he had chosen a military career. He received a cadet’s commission in the colonial regular troops in 1696 and saw considerable action during the War of the Spanish Succession. He was a member of the French and Indian unit commanded by Jean-Baptiste Hertel* de Rouville which attacked Deerfield, Massachusetts, in 1704, and he campaigned in Newfoundland under Daniel d’Auger* de Subercase the following year. Shortly afterwards he was promoted ensign. This, however, was a minor rank and Pierre decided to pursue his career in France where he expected better chances of advancement. He arrived in the mother country early in 1708 and was attached to the Régiment de Bretagne, the one in which Louis had served until his death, with the rank of second lieutenant. At the battle of Malplaquet, on 11 Sept. 1709, he was seriously wounded by gunshot and eight sabre cuts and taken prisoner by the enemy. Following his release in 1710 he was promoted lieutenant.
A lieutenant had costly social obligations which consumed more than his salary. La Vérendrye found that he could not support himself and asked the court for permission to return to Canada. His request was granted on 24 May 1712. He sailed from France in July, no more advanced than when he had arrived four years before. His lieutenancy in the French army had been cancelled and he had forfeited his ensign’s commission in the Canadian troops when he left the colony. Fortunately he was able to regain the latter rank through the influence of Mme de Vaudreuil [Joybert*] who was then residing at the court and who interceded on his behalf.
On 24 Oct. 1712, shortly after landing in Canada, La Vérendrye wed Marie-Anne, daughter of Louis Dandonneau Du Sablé, to whom he had become engaged shortly before his departure for France. Dandonneau was one of Trois-Rivières’s substantial landowners and he endowed his daughter with 2,000 livres as well as land on Île Dupas and Île aux Vaches, located in Lac Saint-Pierre. The couple made their residence on Île aux Vaches, where they lived obscurely for the next 15 years. They had six children – four sons and two daughters – and cleared a 38-acre farm. To round out the slender income derived from this property, La Vérendrye had the revenue of the fief of Tremblay, inherited from his family, his ensign’s pay, and the fur-trading post of La Gabelle founded by his father on the Rivière Saint-Maurice. In 1715, Claude de Ramezay*, acting governor of New France, granted La Vérendrye permission to go there to trade with the Indians a few weeks every year. Even with these additional sources of revenue he was far from affluent. Only by borrowing and selling portions of his properties was he able to make ends meet.
By the mid-1720s La Vérendrye was fast approaching middle age and his life thus far had been anything but successful. His military career had fizzled out in 1712 and since that time he had done little more than eke out a subsistence as a farmer and occasional fur-trader. But the third and most important period of his life was about to open. In 1726 his brother Jacques-René received command of the poste du Nord, embracing a vast area north of Lake Superior. The main post was located at Kaministiquia (Thunder Bay, Ont.), with secondary ones at Nipigon (near the mouth of the Nipigon River) and Michipicoton, north of Sault Ste Marie. Over the next year Jacques-René formed a partnership to carry out the fur trade in the area, hired engagés (indentured employees), and borrowed money from various merchants for the purchase of trade goods. La Vérendrye was taken into the partnership to act as second in command and became commander-in-chief in 1728 when his brother left the post to participate in the war against the Foxes. As far as one can judge it was at this time that the idea of discovering the western sea began to germinate in his mind. As late as 1726 his face was turned towards France, not the Canadian plains, for he was contemplating a trip to the mother country to recover the lieutenancy lost 14 years before.
The search for the western sea, which now began to engage La Vérendrye’s attention, goes back to the dawn of the French presence in North America. Since the days of Verrazzano* and Cartier*, explorer after explorer had tried to find this supposed short route to the Far East. Nebulous at first, the concept of the western sea became quite precise by the end of the 17th century when the French had acquired a clearer picture of the geography of North America. They had ascertained that the land mass was indented on the north and south by great gulfs: the Gulf of Mexico to the southeast, the Gulf of California (mer Vermeille) to the southwest, and Hudson Bay (mer glaciale) to the north. The Gulf of California was known to connect with the Pacific and it was strongly suspected that Hudson Bay did so too. Partly from this geographical pattern, partly from the information obtained from Indians, the French deduced the existence in the middle latitudes of the American continent of a gulf-like western sea (mer du couchant) which opened on the Pacific. La Vérendrye, in brief, was chasing a mirage.
The discovery of these non-existent waters became a matter of some urgency following the death of Louis XIV in 1715. The regent, Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, who governed the kingdom in the name of the young Louis XV, was keenly interested in the geographical and scientific aspects of the problem as were some important members of his entourage such as the cartographers Claude and Guillaume Delisle and the Abbé Jean Bobé. Canadians were also interested in this discovery but for more practical reasons. Executing the project, they anticipated, would require the establishment of a chain of posts in the northwest which would help reconstruct a furtrading network severely injured by the cession of Hudson Bay to the British in 1713.
In the 1720s the French still knew little about the Canadian interior – their point of farthest recorded penetration was Rainy Lake (or Tekamamiouen), reached by Jacques de Noyon in 1688 – but a concept of the west was firmly established among those interested in questions of discovery and exploration. It postulated the existence, somewhere in the interior, of a height of land or divide which could be reached via an eastward-flowing stream and which any explorer must eventually climb. There he would find the source of another river flowing into the western sea. This conceptualization of the interior was approximately correct, if one reads Pacific Ocean instead of western sea, and was the one held by La Vérendrye, but the French had no inkling whatever of the enormity of the distances. Data obtained by Noyon from Indian informants indicated that the Western Sea lay in the latitudes of Lake Winnipeg (Ouinipigon), that the watershed was in the vicinity of Lake of the Woods, and that the westward-flowing stream was the Winnipeg (Ouinipigon) River.
It thus seemed that the western sea lay within easy distance of the border lakes (the Rainy Lake–Lake of the Woods complex). In 1717 an expedition commanded by Zacharie Robutel* de La Noue set out for the area with instructions from Governor Vaudreuil [Rigaud*] to establish a chain of three posts terminating at Lake of the Woods. From this advanced position some of his men could strike out for the western sea. La Noue erected a post at Kaministiquia but advanced no farther. Indian hostility held him back. Disappointed by his failure, the court, acting on the recommendation of Father Charlevoix, whom it had sent to America to make a personal study of the situation, decided to abandon the attempt to reach the western sea by way of the border lakes and to proceed instead from a base on the upper Mississippi. As a preliminary measure a mission was established on Lake Pepin in Sioux country in 1727 for the purpose, among other things, of gathering information from the Indians on possible westward routes [see René Boucher de La Perrière; Michel Guignas].
La Vérendrye changed this orientation. While commanding at the poste du nord he questioned the Indians who came to trade about the land to the west and their answers convinced him that the route to the sea lay indeed through the border lakes and not the Mississippi valley country. A Cree chief named Pako, who had journeyed far into the unknown land, told him something about Lake Ouinipigon and the river system surrounding it. The slave of an elderly chief named Vieux Crapaud described in sketchy fashion the land of the Mandans. Another Indian named Auchagah* drew for him on a piece of bark a map of the western country. From this information La Vérendrye composed his own picture of the Canadian interior. Its chief improvement over previous ones was the location of the western sea, which no longer appears in the area of the Manitoba lakes but an undetermined distance to the west. Its chief weakness was the representation of Lake Ouinipigon not as the nub of a complex set of waterways but merely as an enlargement of the River of the West (as the waterway the explorer sought came to be called). Its chief riddle was the identity (was it the Saskatchewan or the Nelson River?) of the river flowing out of Lake Ouinipigon on which the ebb and flow of the tide reportedly became noticeable after a ten-day journey. In any event La Vérendrye concluded, not wrongly, that the key to the problem of the discovery lay in the region of Lake Ouinipigon. Once the French had a post on those waters they would be strategically located for their dash to the western sea.
The next step was for him to win the French officials over to his plan. In 1728, at Michilimackinac, he met the Jesuit Nicolas Degonnor who was on his way from the Sioux mission to Quebec. The missionary was greatly interested by the data La Vérendrye was gathering and agreed to carry his reports and maps to the governor. Then, in 1730, La Vérendrye himself went down to Quebec and out of his meetings with Governor Charles de Beauharnois the project emerged in its definitive form. Its nature is described in the joint dispatch of Beauharnois and Hocquart* to Maurepas, minister of Marine, of October 1730. The two officials announced that they planned to send La Vérendrye west the following spring to build a post on Lake Ouinipigon. This establishment would not only facilitate the discovery of the western sea but also greatly benefit French commerce since the area was rich in peltries, peltries which were at present going to the English on Hudson Bay through the Crees. La Vérendrye, moreover, would carry out this undertaking without expense to the king except for a modest sum of 2,000 livres to buy presents for the Indians. The minister sanctioned the project although Charlevoix, to whom he referred it for comment, opposed the establishment of permanent posts which, he feared, would enable commerce to get the better of exploration.
The manner in which the expedition was organized did indeed greatly enlarge its commercial dimension. With the court providing only token support, La Vérendrye was obliged to turn to Canadian merchants to find the capital he needed to finance his undertaking. Between March and June 1731 a nine-man partnership made up of four distinct sub-partnerships was formed. It included La Vérendrye, his eldest son Jean-Baptiste*, his nephew Christophe Dufrost de La Jemerais, and the merchants Louis Hamelin, Laurent-Eustache Gamelin Châteauvieux, and Ignace Gamelin* Jr. A ruling issued by Beauharnois appointed La Vérendrye commandant of the post to be built on Lake Ouinipigon and stipulated that he and his associates would hold a monopoly of the area’s fur trade for a three-year period. Nothing was said in this nine-clause document about the discovery of the western sea.
On 8 June 1731 La Vérendrye, accompanied by his sons Jean-Baptiste, Pierre, François, and some 50 engagés, set out from Montreal. They were joined at Michilimackinac by the Jesuit missionary Charles-Michel Mésaiger and arrived at the Grand Portage, at the western extremity of Lake Superior, on 26 Aug. 1731. Here the engagés, worn out by the rigours of the journey and discouraged by the difficulties of the road ahead, refused to advance any farther. However, La Vérendrye and Mésaiger prevailed upon the bolder ones to push on into the interior with Jean-Baptiste and La Jemerais. In the autumn this advance party, moving by an intricate and broken chain of lakes and streams, reached Rainy Lake where it built Fort Saint-Pierre, the first of eight posts eventually established by the La Vérendrye expedition in the northwest. Meantime the commandant and his main body of people had retraced their steps to Kaministiquia where they settled for the winter. In the spring of 1732 the two groups rejoined and, accompanied by some 50 canoes of Crees and Assiniboins, moved on to Lake of the Woods from which the river of the west allegedly sprang. Here they built Fort Saint-Charles which served as La Vérendrye’s headquarters for the next several years.
By means of these two forts La Vérendrye now controlled the border lake country. In the spring of 1733 he sent La Jemerais and Jean-Baptiste on to Lake Ouinipigon to find a suitable location for the post he intended building there. Unfortunately his two lieutenants started out too soon from Fort Saint-Charles. Ice stalled their advance after they had descended the Ouinipigon River to within 15 or 20 leagues of the lake. The younger La Vérendrye remained where he was and La Jemerais returned to Fort Saint-Charles. Almost immediately he was sent to Quebec by the commandant to present a report to Beauharnois on what had been accomplished to date.
He reached Montreal on 20 September and from there went on to Quebec. He discussed with the governor the financial condition of his uncle’s enterprise; 43,000 livres had thus far been spent and returns were inadequate to cover this outlay. Would the crown help finance the expedition by granting the partners 10,000 livres per annum during three years? This request was passed on to Maurepas for consideration. But when he turned from finance to other matters La Jemerais fairly brimmed with optimism. Prevailing winds on Lake of the Woods were westerly and since they brought copious showers the sea could not be far off. Encouraged by this phenomenon he planned to start off in quest of this sea the following spring. By leaving Quebec as soon as the ice broke in 1734 he hoped to reach the land of the “Sioux who go underground,” or the Mandans, some time in 1735. The description of the Mandans which he had obtained from the Crees suggested that they had marked affinities with the Europeans. Their hair was light and their language and their dwellings resembled those of the French. These people reportedly dwelt on the River of the West (in fact they lived on the Missouri), 300 leagues from Lake of the Woods.
Two basic points must be noted from this report. First, the supposition about the proximity of the western sea strengthened Maurepas in his conviction that reaching these waters was a relatively simple matter and did not prepare him to look with understanding upon the delays La Vérendrye was to encounter. Second, solely on the basis of Indian reports and without any prior exploration of Lake Ouinipigon, the search for the River of the West was being diverted from the Canadian plains to the Mississippi basin. This diversion was a fundamental error. It took eight years and two expeditions for the La Vérendryes to realize that the Missouri flowed southeast to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico rather than to the western sea. At this point, belatedly, the search returned to the Canadian plains.
While his lieutenants were exploring advanced locations, meeting Indian groups, and surveying the land for the best strategic sites for posts, La Vérendrye was spending much of his time at Fort Saint-Charles supervising Indian affairs and organizing the fur trade. The pattern of tribal relations which he found west of the Great Lakes bore some similarity to the one which had prevailed in the St Lawrence valley in the 1600s. When Quebec was founded in 1608 the Algonquins and Montagnais were at war with the Iroquois. Since Quebec was situated on the territory of the Algonquins and Montagnais, Champlain* had to extend military assistance to these Indians in order to win their friendship and their commerce. West of the Great Lakes, in the 18th century, a chronic state of war pitted the Assiniboins, Crees, and Monsonis against the Sioux and the Ojibwas. La Vérendrye’s chain of posts being located on the land of the Assiniboins and Crees, he had to side with these Indians in their quarrel; but he could not afford Champlain’s recklessness, for the Sioux and Ojibwas, unlike the Iroquois, were French allies. By openly espousing the quarrels of the Crees and Assiniboins he might well wreck a large segment of New France’s Indian alliances and render untenable French positions on Lake Superior, home of the Ojibwas, and on the upper Mississippi, home of the Sioux.
Thus La Vérendrye had to proceed with extreme caution in his conduct of Indian affairs. Initially his diplomacy met with much success for he was able to prevent a major conflict from breaking out on the Canadian plains. By May 1734, however, the Crees and Assiniboins could no longer be restrained. Seeing this La Vérendrye gave his assent to a military expedition on condition that it be carried out not against the Sioux of the River, who could threaten Fort Beauharnois on Lake Pepin, but against the Sioux of the prairies. At a meeting at Fort Saint-Charles he exhorted his allies to fight well, provided them with ammunition, and allowed Jean-Baptiste to go along as a councillor who would have a voice in deliberations without engaging in actual combat. The commandant would later pay dearly for this rash gesture, even though Jean-Baptiste abandoned the war party when it decided to march against the Sioux of the River.
On 27 May 1734, a few days after his meeting with the Indians, La Vérendrye started out for Montreal. Pressing business called him there. The trading system which he was in the process of organizing was not yet functioning smoothly and some members of the association formed in 1731 to finance the expedition were becoming disenchanted. La Vérendrye himself, for some unstated reason, was unhappy with Louis Hamelin, to whom he owed 7,768 livres, and wished to terminate the agreement with him which still had two years to run. The commandant, furthermore, was anxious both to find out how Maurepas had responded to his appeal for financial aid and to inform Beauharnois that the fort on Lake Ouinipigon, which he had been commissioned to build in 1731, was about to become a reality. On 11 May two of his men had returned to Fort Saint-Charles after exploring the lake and selecting for the fort a site on the Red River a few miles above its mouth. On his way to Montreal La Vérendrye met Joseph Cartier, one of his associates, and instructed him to proceed forthwith to this location to begin the construction. Jean-Baptiste got there first, however, and completed the work by June 1734. The fort was called Maurepas, in honour of the minister.
The news which greeted La Vérendrye when he arrived in the colony was not encouraging. In Montreal he learned that his associates would advance nothing more on credit. In Quebec the governor informed him that the king was unwilling to contribute anything to his enterprise; it must finance itself from the revenues of the fur trade. Although the situation was disheartening, Beauharnois had no intention of abandoning La Vérendrye. On the contrary, he was determined to find a formula that would enable him to press forward with the discovery, thus satisfying Maurepas who was unhappy with the results so far achieved, and also enable the colony to expand its network of posts on the Canadian plains, thus satisfying its need for fur. The solution he hit upon called for La Vérendrye to farm out his posts to his business associates for a three-year period in return for an annual salary of 3,000 livres. These associates would concern themselves with the commercial aspect of the venture while La Vérendrye devoted himself entirely to the discovery. On 18 May 1735 a new association was formed, dominated by Jean-Baptiste Legras and Jean-Marie Nolan. The latter was a younger brother of Charles Nolan Lamarque, one of Montreal’s most important merchants, who was reputed to have sent the most voyageurs to the west and to have sent them the farthest.
On 21 June 1735 La Vérendrye departed once more for the west accompanied by Louis-Joseph, the youngest and perhaps the ablest of his sons, and the Jesuit Jean-Pierre Aulneau*, who was replacing Mésaiger. They arrived at Fort Saint-Charles on 23 October, and almost immediately the worst series of setbacks of the commandant’s career began. First came the death of La Jemerais. He was stricken ill while commanding at Fort Maurepas and died on 10 May 1736 as he was being brought back to Fort Saint-Charles. Then it became evident that the arrangements of 1735 had not improved but impaired the efficiency of operations. The merchants traded where they pleased and left the forts unprovided for. Their negligence in provisioning the posts made it necessary in the spring of 1736 for La Vérendrye to send a 19-man emergency expedition under the command of Jean-Baptiste to Kaministiquia and Michilimackinac for supplies. And now he paid the penalty for having armed the Indians of his command against the Sioux in 1734. A band of the latter Indians on 8 June 1736 attacked the expedition on an island in Lake of the Woods and massacred them to the last man. “In that calamity,” lamented La Vérendrye, “I lost my son, the Reverend Father [Aulneau], and all my Frenchmen to my lifelong regret.” Yet he did not retaliate, knowing full well what the consequences might be.
Despite this tragedy, he was determined to push on to Lake Ouinipigon. Louis-Joseph had gone there in the autumn of 1736 with the intention of starting out for the Mandans but had been obliged to abandon the project when the supplies he required failed to arrive. After cooling the war-like ardour of the Crees, Assiniboins, and Monsonis who wanted to avenge the French blood, his father too left for Fort Maurepas where he arrived in February 1737, five years and eight months after initially setting out for the west. The time was propitious for him to continue on to the Mandans. It was still early in the season and the Indians offered to guide him. Unfortunately, his own men refused to follow him. These two missed opportunities left La Vérendrye with no alternative. He would have to go east to recruit fresh personnel and complain to the governor about the failure of the merchants to support him.
The voyage to Lake Ouinipigon had not been totally wasted, however. It enabled the La Vérendryes to gain a fresh understanding of the complicated Manitoba lakes system and how it related to the western sea. A map drawn in 1737, probably by Louis-Joseph, indicates two major possibilities for reaching that ocean. One, which would be attempted first, was to pass southwest to the Mandan country. The other was to utilize the Saskatchewan River, referred to on the map as the Rivière Blanche. According to Indian reports, this Rivière Blanche connected with a westward flowing river by means of a lake lying on a height of land. This is the first expression of interest in the Saskatchewan as a potential westward route. For the moment La Vérendrye stored in his mind the information about the river, to be used in case the Mandan route proved to be a blind lead.
La Vérendrye received a cool reception when he reached Quebec in the fall of 1731. Maurepas, nearing the end of his patience, had flatly informed Beauharnois in April “that the beaver trade had more to do than anything else with the Sieur de la Veranderye’s western Sea expedition.” The governor may have substantially agreed with this diagnosis but, unlike his superior at Versailles, he attached great importance to the commercial aspect of La Vérendrye’s enterprise. The posts established west of Lake Superior had proved their worth in spectacular fashion in 1735 by producing, jointly with Fort Beauharnois, 100,000 livres weight of beaver, over half the total crop for that year. Still, something had to be done to mollify Maurepas. The governor therefore extracted from La Vérendrye a promise that he would reach the Mandans in 1738 and warned him that he would be recalled if he did not keep his word. He must also have dealt sternly with the merchants for they cooperated closely with La Vérendrye over the next year. Indeed, the Nolan brothers accompanied him on his trek to the Mandans.
La Vérendrye was not only gathering peltries in the west but also a substantial number of Indian slaves. In a dispatch of 26 May 1742 to Beauharnois, Father Claude-Godefroy Coquart reported that a war party of Crees and Assiniboins had recently routed the Sioux of the prairies in a four-day battle, killed 70 men besides women and children, and captured such a large number of slaves that they made a line four arpents long. In his memoir of 1744 to Maurepas, La Vérendrye himself stated that the colony had benefited from his western activities in three chief ways. “Do the great number of people my enterprise provides with a living, the slaves it procures to the colony and the pelts which had previously gone to the English count for nothing?” This statement provides some indication of the magnitude of the slave trade. Most historians, however, for reasons which are not too difficult to understand, have preferred to ignore this aspect of his career.
After his interview with Beauharnois in 1737, La Vérendrye realized that his future was at stake. Now, at last, he displayed the true manner of an explorer. Passing rapidly from post to post he reached Fort Maurepas on 22 Sept. 1738. On 3 October he was on the site of present-day Portage-la-Prairie where he built Fort La Reine “on the road by which the Assiniboins go to the English.” On 16 October, accompanied by 20 picked men, his sons Louis-Joseph and François, the Nolan brothers, and 25 Assiniboins, he set off again on the final leg of his journey. It came to a triumphant end on 3 December when, his Indian escort swelled to 600 Assiniboins and 30 Mandans, he entered the main Mandan village with drums beating and colours flying. This village was located in present-day North Dakota, near the upper waters of either the Little Knife River or Shell Creek, about 20 miles from the modern town of Sanish. At last La Vérendrye stood, he thought, within a few miles of the famous River of the West. The most significant comment on him as an explorer is that, after having journeyed some 1,500 miles, he did not trouble himself to move the short remaining distance to view the river but sent Louis-Joseph to do it in his place. The latter took his bearings at Old Crossings, where the meandering Missouri turns sharply to the southwest. Had high bluffs not blocked his view downstream he could have seen the Missouri resuming its normal southeast flow and probably lost any illusion about its being the River of the West.
The journey to the Mandans had left La Vérendrye physically exhausted and burdened with debt. He struggled back to Fort La Reine in January 1739 and never afterwards displayed the stamina and fortitude which had characterized his early years on the Canadian plains. In June 1740 he made a third voyage to the colony, hoping to straighten out his finances in preparation for another and yet deeper thrust into the Missouri River country. Upon reaching Montreal he learned that his wife Marie-Anne, who had ably served him as attorney and procurator during his long absences, had died the previous September and lay buried in Sainte-Anne’s chapel of Notre-Dame church. In Quebec, however, Beauharnois received him graciously, lodged him in his residence during the winter, and tried to place his finances on a sounder basis by granting him, beginning in June 1741 when the arrangements concluded in 1735 expired, the fur-trading monopoly of the posts he had founded. In June 1741, accompanied by Father Coquart, he set out on his fourth and last voyage to the west.
In his headquarters at Fort La Reine he seems to have had two main preoccupations. His first was to determine once and for all if the western sea could be reached by a southwesterly route. With this end in view he sent Louis-Joseph on the memorable journey that took him in 1742–43 as far as the Big Horn mountains of Wyoming. His second concern was to consolidate his control of the Manitoba lakes as he had done previously of the border lakes. This task was delegated to Pierre. Between 1741 and 1743 Pierre built Fort Dauphin (Winnipegosis, Man.); others, probably members of his party, built Fort Bourbon, to the northwest of Lake Winnipeg, and Fort Paskoya, to the northwest of Cedar Lake. These posts were located in the country of the Crees who had long been asking for them so as to be spared the lengthy journey to the counters of the Hudson’s Bay Company. With the exception of Fort Paskoya, their purpose was clearly trade, not exploration, and they probably further discredited La Vérendrye in the eyes of Maurepas who by now regarded his every gesture with suspicion. In 1742 he informed Beauharnois that La Vérendrye’s enterprise might show better results if some suitable officer – to whom the commandant himself would pay an annual salary of 3,000 livres! – were associated with him and if one of his sons were replaced by another officer. Although Beauharnois protested such an arrangement, the handwriting on the wall was clear: Maurepas was intent upon squeezing the La Vérendrye clan out of the west. La Vérendrye did not misread it. Alleging ill health, but in reality to avoid the humiliation in store for him, he handed in his resignation in 1743, to take effect the following year.
He resigned but, thanks to Beauharnois’s unflagging loyalty, his links with the west were not severed. Nicolas-Joseph de Noyelles de Fleurimont who succeeded him as commandant was married to one of his nieces, his sons remained at their posts, and he himself carried on a sizeable trade in the area thanks to permits issued to him by Beauharnois and his successor La Galissonière [Barrin]. In 1744, thanks again to Beauharnois, Maurepas grudgingly granted him a captain’s commission and shortly afterwards Beauharnois named him captain of his guards. La Vérendrye now settled down to the good life, entertaining and being entertained by the colony’s fashionable society and courting Esther Sayward (Sayer), widow of Pierre de Lestage, one of New France’s great merchants. In 1746 Noyelles resigned his command. La Vérendrye was appointed to succeed him and began planning yet another western expedition, this time up the Saskatchewan River, which, he belatedly realized, was the most convenient route by which to pursue the discovery of the western sea. He planned to leave for the west himself in 1750 but died on 5 Dec. 1749, not, however, before having received the greatest honour of his career, the cross of Saint-Louis, bestowed upon him by Antoine-Louis Rouillé, successor of Maurepas. He left a small estate worth perhaps 4,000 livres, much of it consisting of articles of clothing and adornment, the estate, in brief, of an impecunious nobleman.
And this is what La Vérendrye had essentially been. After unsuccessful attempts to pursue a military career in France and, following his return to Canada, to make a living from agriculture and the fur trade near Trois-Rivières – he once referred to this latter period as his forgotten years – he turned to the west. Why? To perform deeds which, by contributing to the glory of the king, would also contribute to his own. But glory in his eyes did not consist exclusively or even essentially in the discovery of the sea of the west. “I am only seeking,” he informed Maurepas in 1731, “to carry the name and arms of His Majesty into a vast stretch of countries hitherto unknown, to enlarge the colony and increase its commerce.” Thirteen years later, writing this time in the past tense, he made almost exactly the same statement.
How successful was he? As a discoverer, the most important aspect of his mission in the eyes of Maurepas if not in his own, he was a failure, and this for many reasons. The ocean was far away and the intervening area completely uncharted. With the crown refusing to subsidize his venture he was obliged to rely on local merchants. Unfortunately, these merchants were grouped in small partnerships that could not generate the capital required to sustain an expedition so far away from the St Lawrence valley. Their repeated failures to provision the posts prove it clearly. Furthermore, La Vérendrye had neither the tastes nor the qualifications of an explorer. It took him five years and eight months to reach Lake Winnipeg. Without any prior exploration of these waters he allowed his expedition to veer towards the blind alley of the American plains. When, after seven and a half years, he finally stood within a half-day’s journey of the Missouri River, he did not bother to move this short distance to view the alleged River of the West. Significant incuriosity! All these incidents help to explain the weakness of his westward thrust.
But this is the debit side of the ledger. When all is said and done, one must recognize that La Vérendrye pushed back the frontiers of New France as far as Manitoba; that in countless meetings with the Indians he enshrined loyalty to the French monarchy among important new tribes; that the posts he built west of the Great Lakes transformed Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, and Lake Winnipeg into French inland seas and diverted much of the fur of the Saskatchewan and Assiniboine areas from Hudson Bay to the St Lawrence. He did all this quietly, without fuss and fanfare, in the face of personal tragedies and unusual adversities. Had he only been more articulate and outspoken in his dispatches, perhaps Maurepas, like Beauharnois, would have recognized the great merits of this valiant son of New France.
[Correspondence, memoirs, maps, and the journals kept by La Vérendrye are found in AN, Col., B; C11A; C11E E; F3; Section Outre-Mer, Dépôt des fortifications des colonies. Important items will also be found in Archives du ministère des Affaires étrangères (Paris), Mém. et doc., Amérique, 8; BN, NAF 9286 (Margry). A convenient starting point for the study of La Vérendrye is AN, Col., C11E, 16, in which considerable documentation on him has been gathered, and AN, Col., E, 263, his personal dossier. Many of these documents have been published in Découvertes et établissements des Français (Margry), VI; Journals and letters of La Vérendrye (Burpee). The latter is the more widely used of the two. The journal of the expedition of 1738–39 to the Mandans is published in PAC Report, 1889, A, 1–14; the inventory of his belongings taken after his death is in “Documents sur Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye,” J.-J. Lefebvre, édit., APQ Rapport, 1949–51, 33–67. Notarial archives are indispensable for an understanding of the organization and financing of the La Vérendrye expeditions. See in particular, ANQ-M, Greffe de J.-B. Adhémar; Greffe de F.-M. Lepailleur; Greffe de Michel Lepailleur de Laferté; Greffe de J.-C. Porlier; Greffe de Pierre Raimbault.
Early historians, such as William Smith* and François-Xavier Garneau*, barely mentioned La Vérendrye and what they wrote was far from favourable. This is not surprising. The principal source available on him until the mid-19th century was Mémoires sur le Canada, depuis 1749 jusqu’à 1760. La Vérendrye is therein depicted as a man who was motivated by selfish interests and who, because of lack of education and natural aptitudes, was unsuited for the career of discoverer.
The basis for a reassessment was laid by Pierre Margry, the French archivist, who discovered in the papers entrusted to his care a large quantity of documents concerning La Vérendrye. In 1852 he published a short revisionist article, “Les Varennes de La Vérendrye,” in Le Moniteur universel (Paris). This article, and more particularly the documents which he later published, enabled La Vérendrye to blossom into one of the major figures of the French régime.
Since that time he has fared quite well at the hands of historians. He is traditionally represented as an explorer first and foremost, one who was misunderstood by the government in France. This is the point of view put forward by his two major biographers, Champagne, Les La Vérendrye, and N. M. Crouse, La Vérendrye, fur trader and explorer (Ithaca, N.Y., Toronto, ). The chief dissenting voice has been that of A. S. Morton in History of the Canadian west and “La Vérendrye: commandant, fur-trader, and explorer,” CHR, IX (1928). He does not question La Vérendrye’s importance and merit but maintains that his real preoccupation was the establishment of posts on the Canadian plains and the organization of the fur trade.
Although somewhat traditional in its approach, Champagne’s Les La Vérendrye is the basic work on the subject. It reassesses, among other things, the nature of La Vérendrye’s personality and of his financial problems. Also important is Rich, History of the HBC, I, which examines the impact of La Vérendrye’s activities on the Hudson’s Bay Company. R. I. Ruggles, “The historical geography and cartography of the Canadian west, 1670–1795” (unpublished phd thesis, University of London, 1958) is indispensable for the geographical aspects of the La Vérendrye expeditions. Jean Delanglez, “A mirage: the sea of the west,” RHAF, I (1947–48), 346–81, 541–68, studies the evolution of the concept of the western sea from the 1500s to 1720.
The problems raised by La Vérendrye’s itineraries and the location of some of his forts are dealt with in a large body of periodical literature. See for instance N. M. Crouse, “The location of Fort Maurepas,” CHR, IX (1928) 206–22. O. G. Libby, “La Verendrye’s visit to the Mandans in 1738–39,” North Dakota State Hist. Soc. Coll. (Bismarck), II (1908), 502–8, and “Some Verendrye enigmas,” Mississippi Valley Hist. Rev., III (1916–17), 143–60. C. P. Wilson, “La Vérendrye reaches the Saskatchewan,” CHR, XXXIII (1952), 39–50. y.f.z.]
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Cite This Article
Yves F. Zoltvany, “GAULTIER DE VARENNES ET DE LA VÉRENDRYE, PIERRE (Boumois),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gaultier_de_varennes_et_de_la_verendrye_pierre_3E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Yves F. Zoltvany|
|Title of Article:||GAULTIER DE VARENNES ET DE LA VÉRENDRYE, PIERRE (Boumois)|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1974|
|Year of revision:||1974|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|